Only a game: Soccer star finds more meaning on battlefield
Seth Jahn was on the field stretching, getting ready for another big game, and hundreds of fans were filing in.
Suddenly, he had a thought: My job is to play a game; all these people will leave here and go back to doing important stuff.
''I wasn't OK with that,'' Jahn said.
With that thought, his journey began - one that has taken him to more than 90 countries, helped him learn four languages, brought him to the brink of death and back through his service in the military, and ultimately, led him back to the soccer field, where the one-time pro will play for the U.S. Paralympic team in Rio de Janeiro later this summer.
It's an honor to represent the United States on the soccer field, Jahn says, and something he felt he needed to do, just to see how far he can go with the sport his family made sacrifices for him to play as a kid.
And yet, having witnessed the horrors from 11 years of on-and-off combat in the Army - including no fewer than three near-death experiences over a career that included three deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq - he's all-too-familiar with a world that has nothing in common with the global competition that will take place in Brazil.
''I know there are people out there being abused by corrupt regimes,'' he said. ''And it's very hard for me to justify kicking a ball around for a living when I have a particular skill set that can make a difference in the way these people survive.''
Though he's now listed at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Jahn describes himself as a scrawny scrapper as a kid - a boy who ''constantly got beat up, but never backed down.''
A day at the swimming pool near his childhood home in Gulf Breeze, Florida changed his life. It was there that his sister, Hannah, who was 9 at the time, got cornered by three boys twice her age.
''They harassed me and made sexual comments,'' Hannah said. ''It was a very scary situation for me, and, I'm sure, for my brother.''
Seth and Hannah's mom came to the pool and got them out safely.
Years later, long after the memory had faded from Hannah's conscience, Seth confided to his sister that the episode had scarred him - that he didn't sleep for a week after it happened, and had trouble eating.
''He was devastated that he wasn't in a place where he could defend someone he loved,'' Hannah said. ''Something in that moment clicked for him, that he'd make sure he was never in a situation where he couldn't defend someone he loved.''
For Jahn, that meant a lifetime of chiseling his body, and his mind, all geared toward a lifetime of public service - starting in the military.
His first near-death experience came on a training jump from nearly 1000 feet when both his parachutes malfunctioned. He kicked his legs violently to create air pockets that gave him a chance of not landing at maximum velocity. He hit the ground at about 75 mph, but lived to tell about it.
There was a fall from a four-story building during another firefight in the Middle East. In a letter to his father, Jahn wrote, ''the guys saw something last night they can't explain.'' They swore Jahn's plummeting body slowed down as it neared the ground.
Jahn's father, the Rev. Roger Jahn, said he had a vivid dream several years ago - including visions of his son engaged in a knife fight with an enemy soldier. He wrote to Seth about the vividness of the dream and the uncertainty of watching a fight ''with neither soldier prevailing.'' Months later, Seth wrote a letter back, with a footnote at the bottom.
It read: ''Oh, by the way, that was a very interesting dream you had. Maybe we'll have time to talk about it. Just so you know, I prevailed.''
The night that ended Jahn's military career was also the night that, in a strange twist, put him in position to play soccer on the Paralympic team.
It was Oct. 20, 2010. Jahn and four others were in an off-road vehicle and engaged in a five-hour firefight against the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan. Their vehicles were blacked out and the drivers were using night-vision goggles. The vehicle Jahn was in rolled down a cliff and landed upside-down in a river. He was pinned in that position. His last memories from the evening were of soldiers pulling at him to wrangle him free. He awoke hours later at the hospital.
Among Jahn's long list of injuries included disarticulated ribs, damage to his spinal cord, paralysis of his right arm and leg and traumatic brain injury.
His journey over the next two years spanned 11 hospitals. He had to learn how to talk again. He met dozens of doctors, most of whom suggested if he worked hard, he'd be lucky to walk again within 10 years.
''But I was a little too dumb to just quit,'' said Jahn, who will turn 34 on Christmas Day.
His biggest coup during the long rehab phase: Sweet-talking a nurse into sliding him a key to the gym. After a typically long day of doctor-prescribed rehabilitation, Jahn would wheel himself down the hallway, open the door to the darkened gym and teach himself how to walk again.
''My goal was to go back to serving my country,'' he said.
He made it.
Jahn's next act was as a special-ops contractor for the government. He went on secret missions he is forbidden to talk about.
He also linked up with the U.S. Paralympic soccer team, which allowed him to train while he worked. He retired last year to devote himself full-time to soccer, knowing this could be his final chance.
While he concedes there is conflict in returning to the fun and games, his family sees this as a different sort of chance. Both Hannah and Roger spoke of heartfelt financial gifts Seth has given to friends in need, to kids whose parents are in prison, to families who need a break.
''I keep thinking, I'd love him to find an opportunity to open up some doors so that maybe he can get his payback,'' Hannah said. ''When I heard about soccer, I thought, `Well, maybe this is it.'''
Jahn is returning to the pitch neither for money nor for fame.
In many ways, he's taking this on - a quick stop before he moves to other bucket-list items like climbing Mount Everest and helming an Iditarod team - to pay back his family.
''They took a lot off their plates to put me in a position to excel,'' Jahn said. ''I want to give back to them.''
This will likely be his last, best chance to squeeze every last bit out of a soccer career that he has never fully embraced.
In Rio, he'll play on a U.S. team seeded eighth out of eight.
''Knowing him, he wouldn't want it any other way,'' Hannah said.
And yet, it is just a game.
''I can't compare it to some of these other things I've experienced in my life, and what some of these guys are living through right now. I'd feel like a hypocrite if I did,'' Jahn said. ''But if we could pull something off as a team, it would be significant, for sure.''